A Sermon preached on 7th January 2018, Feast of the Epiphany (transf.), at St. Augustine’s, WiesbadenIsaiah 60: 1 – 6; Ephesians 3: 1 – 12; Matthew 2: 1 – 12
In Germany the Feast of the Epiphany is known as "Three Kings Day" and in the Cathoilic regions the Sternensänger, dressed as kings. go from house to house collecting money for charitable causes.
But, according to the Bible, they were only “wise men from the East,” not kings. But to be a full-time magi or wise man, an astrologer or astronomer you would have to be wealthy, and at least serve a king or ruler. We also have no evidence for the number of visitors. We just know that they offered three types of gifts from their treasure chests: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And while I am deconstructing the story …. We don’t know their names either. Caspar. Melchior and Balthasar were probably reverse engineered out of the initials CMB that are written on or over doors as part of the traditional Epiphany blessing, standing for "Christus mansionem benedicat" or May Christ bless this house.
What we do know is that magi came in fulfillment of the prophecy we heard in the reading from Isaiah: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. … They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” (Isaiah 60:3,6)
The wise men came to and followed a light, the light of the star that lead them to Bethlehem and to the one we call the Light of the world. “Ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.” (Matthew 2:9) Once there they proclaimed praise: “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.” (2:11)
There are however some big differences between the prophecy and its fulfillment. Isaiah imagines the representatives of the nations coming to Jerusalem, bringing their riches with them, especially gold and frankincense. In Matthew they come to Bethlehem, and they bring not just gold and frankincense, but also myrrh. Ironically, they are sent to Bethlehem by King Herod. There is a message in this too. Bethlehem was the city of Israel’s great king, David. Herod was king only by virtue of the Roman occupying powers. And his family had no connection to either of the great royal dynasties, not to the house of David, nor even to the Hasmonean dynasty founded by Judas Maccabeus. Herod’s family were originally Edomites, though Herod was raised as a Jew. Bethlehem as a destination tells us who is to be seen as the true king of Israel and of all the nations.
The gifts are also significant and contain a message. On the one hand, these valuable items were standard gifts to honor a king or deity in the ancient world: gold as a precious metal, frankincense as perfume or incense, and myrrh as anointing oil. We find these same three items recorded in ancient inscriptions of gifts or offerings and, as we heard, Isaiah also mentions two of them.
But there is a spiritual meaning to the gifts as well. Gold represents Jesus’ kingship. The Magi came to hail a new king. Gold was valuable, beautiful, and long-lasting – just the right thing for a king who would not have just any throne, but an everlasting one.
The gift of frankincense is in recognition of Jesus' priesthood. Frankincense was often used in the temple routines, burned ceremonially by the priests. Jesus is – according to Hebrews – our great high priest, not just replacing the high priests of the Temple in Jerusalem but acting as mediator and intercessor for the whole world.
Finally, myrrh, that extra gift not mentioned in Isaiah’s prophecy. This is a bittersweet present, as myrrh was used in embalming rituals, and so connected with death and burial. This gift foreshadows Jesus’ death. It also reminds us Jesus’ death was already present at his birth. It was part of his mission.
The three gifts stand then for Jesus as King, as Priest, and as Sacrifice.
The strange thing is, we could receive the same three gifts. We are also called to be kings and priests, and to give up our lives.
In the 1st Letter of Peter (2:9) we read, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” God has entrusted creation to us as beings made in God’s image and as Christ’s heirs. But we are kings on his behalf. Christ is still the king of kings, we owe him homage, and our reign or rule is supposed to be by his standards.
We are also all priests, not just me. We all have priestly responsibility “to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him … and, … to carry on Christ's work of reconciliation in the world.” Together we worship and praise the one great high priest.
And what do I mean by giving up our lives? In his Letter to the Romans (6:3-4) Paul writes, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” In Baptism we promise to give our lives to Christ; to seek and serve Christ; to put selfish desires to death. He has already died for us, but through Baptism we share in that death and in the promise of new life in this world and in resurrection at the end of our lives.
And what gifts should we bring to the Christ child, to the incarnated God? What can we give that God needs? One answer is simply, nothing. The other is that God may not need anything from us, but that God desires that we give back just a little of what we have received. Just as the presents Jesus received from the Magi came with great responsibility, so too do the gifts we receive come with a charge or call. God’s other desire is that we receive God’s greatest gift, the gift of God’s Son, fully and completely and without any reservation.
In the words of the last verse of Christina Rossetti’s lovely carol, “In the bleak midwinter“
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.